Acute Unfinished Projects Syndrome: Incomplete Tasks Can Be a Sign of an Impending Bipolar Episode

Last Updated: 8 Jan 2020

When you’re having trouble finishing tasks or meeting deadlines, it’s not your to-do list you need to check, it’s your bipolar stability.

Sometimes I find writing difficult in the most basic sense: the act of stringing words together to form a sentence can become impossible for me. My mind is so scattered that by the time I get half a thought down, my brain has moved on to something else. Ten minutes later, I realize I’ve lost time by just staring at the wall, completely lost in thought.

This is the current I swim against during unstable times. I amaze myself each time I to put together 800–1000 words, something I rarely do in one sitting. Bipolar can interfere with my productivity. It slows me down and trips me up, and sometimes that leads to a secondary disorder I call “Acute Unfinished Projects Syndrome.” Maybe you have it too, and if so, I’ll bet it really annoys your family or roommates.

For most of my life, I imagined this syndrome was mainly a creative predicament. It’s fairly common to get ideas about a new project when you’re in the middle of something else. As far as I’m concerned, finishing a piece and not knowing what you’re going to work on next is the worst, so I’ve embraced a certain amount of creative chaos. I figured it was one of the flakier features of my personality, and, when I was feeling bad, I thought it was a character flaw—that I was a lazy person with a follow-through deficit. Eventually, I realized that it was more than a creative predicament or a Lynda thing. It was connected to my mood disorder—the amount of unfinished work around me is a reliable indicator of my stability.

Bipolar disorder affects my brain and the way it thinks. Hypomania is having one idea and not being able to finish it before the next one appears. Imagine a crowd of panicked people rushing to leave a building as a fire alarm is blaring, everyone pushing to make it through the doors at once. Now you have a picture of what happens in my head, of how aggressively my thoughts compete with each other.

However, if that hypomania is dysphoric, a single thought becomes an unstoppable gladiator, and there is nothing sensible I can tell myself to fight it. I will sit down to write and begin my sentence, only to blink five minutes later—waking up from a trance I didn’t realize I’d been in. Progress gets held hostage to anger and frustration, or whatever unreasonable emotion that has activated the gladiator.

Then there is depression, which is basically not having the next thought. This is certainly not conducive to taking the next step, which is essentially how progress works. Milder depression puts its own twist on things by bringing out my perfectionist self. I start things on time but still end up finishing at the last minute because nothing seems good enough. Stability would say, “How much time am I willing to devote to this?” and put that time stamp on my project, but an unworthy, depressed state of mind always needs to add one more final touch.

Anxiety causes fearful thoughts to swoop over my work like vultures. Sometimes they pick it apart until I abandon it, and sometimes I succeed in grounding myself and moving forward.

Some of my unfinished craft projects are actually things I picked up to carry me through tough times. There was a phase when I did needlework. It was something I could focus on to distract me from unwelcome thoughts. It worked pretty well. I made a few nice things, then abandoned it for the best reason of all—I stopped having those thoughts.

Unfortunately, most of the time unfinished work means I need to take better care of my bipolar. Identifying the patterns in my thinking that underpin different symptoms has allowed me to cope more effectively. Knowing that depression is holding me back versus anxiety is crucial because they need to be addressed differently. I can use grounding exercises and breathing techniques to help me with the latter. However, I may have to partner with my psychiatrist to address a sustained period of depression.

I can’t say that I have found a magical spell for ending “Acute Unfinished Projects Syndrome.” The tools I use are the most basic time management ones I learned in school: break tasks into chunks, tackle one thing at a time, give yourself a soft deadline . . . but you already know this stuff. Here’s the thing: if I’m using these skills and they’re working for me, then I’m stable. When I can’t seem to finish things (or finish on time) because I’m an anxious, depressed, or hypomanic mess, I don’t need expert advice on how to get organized and get more out of my day. I need to address the fact that my brain is working overtime, reacting to stimuli that don’t deserve my attention.

The ability to prioritize tasks in order to be productive is a cognitive function that gets compromised by bipolar thinking. Unfinished projects are the physical evidence of this struggle. If work is piling up around you or a loved one with this illness, it isn’t time for a conversation about time management. It’s time for a conversation about bipolar.

About the author
Lynda has been living with Bipolar II for nearly two decades and is expecting to receive her award nomination at any moment. She is a language tutor, furniture rehab artist, and founder and owner of Pink Unicorn Revival, a home decor upcycling initiative. She holds a B.A. in English and a diploma in Professional Writing from Mount Royal and MacEwan universities respectively. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, with her partner, one spoiled cat, and one very spoiled dog. Catch her tweets @CocoRubes.
  1. I never follow through with anything. I am great coming out of the gate, then I fizzle out. I have no hobbies because I can’t finish anything. I have signed up and cancelled my gym membership 4 times because I stop going. My job is suffering because I have several things that get thrown at me and I don’t know how to manage it all. I’ve been told I need to find a way to manage my day. I drive everyone in my family crazy because of my lack of follow through. I’m extremely frustrated and I feel helpless. I’m bipolar II by the way lol.
    Sorry for the rambling. Thank you for listening.

  2. Correction – “symptom to the cause”

  3. Oh my goodness! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve read countless things about bipolar disorder and consider myself to be someone who has learned to live and function fairly well with it; but THIS has enlightened me in a whole new way with something I’ve struggled to identify, much less explain to anyone else, in a way I never thought possible. It comes at such a critical time for me too, as I wrestle with the frustration, guilt and bewilderment of feeling so under accomplished and motivated, without being able to explain why. You’ve put helped me to “draw lines from the sunroom to the cause.” I’m eternally grateful. Thank you!

  4. This is so well said! Maybe having my loved ones read this will result in them finally “getting it,” but I won’t hold my breath. This syndrome clearly has irritated people around me — they comment on my “quirky” habit of leaving sticky notes all over the house as a reminder to myself to address a multitude of unfinished projects/tasks. I currently am disciplining myself to have only 4 locations where store my “to-do” lists. One thing has helped me significantly. A dear friend has lived with me for a good number of years and sees when I have crossed a line where hypomania is acutely ruling my life. I have given him permission to be assertive in helping me slow down when he observes that I am in the midst of a frenzy trying to accomplish a myriad of varied tasks all at the same time. He will say “Deborah, it is time stop.” With much resistance (“But, these things are important to get done right now!”), I do sit down and do some deep breathing and let my muscles start to relax. I am so grateful for his practical help. He provides a reality check. His understanding validates my struggle.
    — Even if it allows for only a temporary respite, and an hour later I find myself becoming once again overwhelmed with the urge to vigorously resume my attack of my “to-do” lists. I start to revisit the idea that I have to take advantage of my hypomanic episode and get as much accomplished as possible so that there won’t be so many things left undone to haunt me when I dip into another depression.

  5. Ha! It makes a lot more sense… I’ve spent two days attempting to work on a logo and memorial decal for a friend who just lost his son in a car accident. He started an organization to send free cast nets to kids called Wet Nets for Waylon, in honor of his son. I’ve felt so guilty for not being able to complete them in a decent period but, I just haven’t been able to finish anything at all! Knowing this is just me and perhaps I’m not taking the best care of myself, well… it is true. So, I’m going to finish the logo and decal design right now… then get to work on the blog post I started 2 weeks ago. 🙂 thank you for this.

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